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Women in Early Christian Society


Western Illinois University Sociology professor Polly Radosh explains in her lecture “Women in Early Christianity” that women have had a relatively low status in Christian societies; a fact which contradicts Jesus’s ideals of equity, fairness, and liberation. Christian traditions have had strong restrictions on women’s participation, she explains, because women have long been denied access to public arenas because of biblical recommendations. Not only do the recommendations appear in the Old, but Radosh sees that the patriarchal Christian tradition is maintained in the New Testament as well.  Men are depicted as leaders, while women are recommended for domestic roles, so women, according to many biblical writings, are denied full social participation. 

Image from http://www.unc.edu/courses/2001spring/reli/193/001/

Radosh points to several teachings from the New Testament which define the ideal feminine behavior. Women are to be sober and obedient, based on Titus 2:4-5; to submit to their husbands, as advised in Colossians 3:18; to accept men as their authority figures, in 1 Corinthians 11:3; and to be silent in church, as described in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

Radosh finds this traditional outlook on the function of women surprising and contradictory, as Jesus wanted all people to be seen as spiritual equals.  Radosh explains that the reason that policies advocating differences from Jesus’s teachings exist can be found when one examines the historical context.

Radosh explains that New Testament is made up of two sections: the Gospels and the Epistles. The Gospels are thought to be written by the apostles who knew Jesus personally--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--or their representatives. Gospels authors are debated.  Using carbon-dating on the scriptures suggest that many were not written until about 100 years after Jesus’s death; however, these do seem to be at least orally passed down from people who knew Jesus and saw his miracles first hand. The Epistles, on the other hand, have been attributed to Paul. He, Radosh explains, did not know Jesus but became a Christian after being struck by lightning, after Jesus’s death.  As with the Gospels, many current biblical scholars believe that Paul’s letters are not all actually written by Paul.

Radosh maintains that an analysis of both Gospels and Epistles will show that the messages they communicate in regard to gender roles are very different. The Gospels, she maintains, have no negative statements about women attributed to Jesus or his followers.  They reject the restrictive traditional roles of the time period.  This contradicts the opinion of women expressed in other areas of the Bible.

Radosh explains that the story of the resurrection of Jesus is especially significant to gender studies because he appears to two women: Mary, his mother, and Mary Magdalene. This is important because it contradicts the Hebrew tradition which hold that women cannot bear legal witness; they could not enter the synagogue; they were not credible as witnesses.  Following this, Radosh does not find it surprising that when the women went to the apostles and disciples to tell them about the resurrection that they were not believed.

Radosh sees Jesus as an early feminist because he taught women the scriptures, which went against Rabbinic law, and accepted them as followers. She notes that he did not treat women as sex objects, and that during a time when women who transgressed sexually could be put to death, he preached forgiveness for these women. Finally, Radosh notes that he rejected the blood taboo. Hebrew law held that menstruating women were social outcasts, were unclean, and were to be totally separated from society. Jesus accepts and includes these women in his teachings.

Radosh analyzes the social context of the time period to explain why this treatment of women is so different from what is actually put into place as the Christian religion develops and is eventually institutionalized. She points out that new Christians were drawn from three different sects: Hebrews, Romans, and Greeks, all of which had histories of restricting women’s behavior and advocating male authority and control.

However, she explains, that as Christianity developed, Rome had been at war for over 300 years.  Males/warriors were becoming more scarce, so women, at about 0 C.E., were taking on leadership roles in political and economic arenas to fill the gap the shortage of males created, and because of this necessity, they were being more highly educated.  The paterfamilias of their past was no longer practical.  In fact, Jo Ann McNamara notes in her essay “Matres Patriae/Matres Ecclesiae: Women of the Roman Empire” that women were in fact the largest demographic follower of Christ’s teachings.  Whereas his male followers all tended to be humble and slaves, McNamara shows, his female followers spanned the entire social range, and it is because many of his followers were wealthy females that his ideas were able to be promoted and proliferated both before and after his death. Without the influence, missionary work, political work, and sometimes martyrdom of women, Christ’s ideas might have died out or been eradicated.  Radosh points out that a similar loosening was occurring in ancient Greece.  Greece had been at war with Rome for a long time, and so their population and power structure was much diminished.  As they came under Roman rule, their gender roles shifted, offering women more freedom and opportunity.  Likewise, the Hebrews also were conquered by Romans, so Israeli women were also getting more leadership roles and becoming priestesses, teachers, etc., than they previously had known.

Radosh continues her discussion of women’s roles in the early Christian period by revealing that as Christianity came on the scene, Christians were seen as dangerous. The complete spiritual equality the religion advocated seemed to suggest an inherent equality which was particularly threatening to the conquering Roman emperors, and so the Roman rulers tried to eradicate them--feeding them to lions as entertainment, torturing and executing them, etc..  For 200 years Christians were persecuted until a measure of tolerance was reached, and then finally, about 100 years later, it became official religion.

During the period of persecution, however, the Christians needed to set themselves apart from the other religions.  To recruit members they needed to convince them that they were different than the other cults.  They decided to advocate a greater respect for life; they decided not to adorn themselves, as many of the materialistic Roman culture did; they would be more associated with home and family and being peaceful, unlike the Romans who liked to socialize at parties and sporting events. And, finally, they decided that their men and women would be sexually restricted.  Christians would not participate in orgies or homosexuality, etc. They would be different.  As part of this strategy, they would return to traditional gender roles; they would not liberate their women.  Again, as a strategy of survival, this would allow them to differentiate themselves from the other religions, which were seen as too liberal.  The equality ideology advocated by Jesus was not stressed.  The Epistles recommend women stay home and be silent. The strategy has survived beyond the recommendations of Paul, beyond the situation where a survival strategy was needed.  

Even now, policies are made based on the recommendations in the Epistles. The Catholic church, for instance, does not allow women as priests; Southern Baptist men recently met to reaffirm their place in the public sphere and to remove their women from positions of leadership within their churches and families. These traditional “family values, ” Radosh reminds us, come from the Epistles and not from Jesus or the Gospels.  These definitions of men and women’s behavior ideals have lasted 2000 years. Radosh concludes her comments on women in the early Christian church by reminding us that the gender roles that we have adhered to were strategic moves in a certain context and have endured beyond the necessity of that historical context. 

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Ancient Cultures, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 10 June 2009 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.